Lake Malawi is one of the reasons that make a trip to the Warm Heart of Africa so special. You can do all kinds of activities and of course relax there as well. It is the perfect place to chill after your long international flight, and after an exciting safari in Malawi’s national parks. If you want to get to know the true meaning of the word paradise, keep reading!
A very small part of history
Dr. David Livingstone was the first European to officially “discover” Lake Malawi in 1859. However, it is now known that the Portuguese were there as early as 1846, but apparently they didn’t decide to record it.
Livingstone was impressed by the size and beauty of Lake Malawi. In the evening he sat for hours, staring at all the fishing boats with their lights. To him, it seemed as if the starry sky flowed over into the lake, and he gave it the nickname Lake of Stars. An annual music and arts festival on the beach still carries this name.
He heard locals speak of the lake as “nyasa”. Livingstone wanted to stick to the local name and wrote Lake Nyasa on his maps. He apparently never found out that nyasa really just means lake, so he had called it “Lake Lake”…
Livingstone has spent a lot of time in Malawi, which we will devote an entire blog to in the coming months. To honor him, for example, Malawi’s previous capital was named after his birthplace Blantyre in Scotland. Malawi and Scotland still have a special relationship!
What does Lake Malawi mean to the people?
For generations, Lake Malawi has provided food for many families, especially fish. Around the lake you will find many fishermen’s villages, where Malawians have small farming fields and daily go out on the lake with their wooden canoes. Locally these canoes are called “bwato”. It takes a lot of knowledge and experience to make a bwato from a tree trunk. And keeping your balance on the water is perhaps even more difficult!
Seven days a week, these fishermen defy all kinds of weather to feed their families. Fortunately, the weather in Malawi is good for most of the year. But during the rainy season there can be large waves on Lake Malawi. Sadly, a number of fishermen are killed in storms each year. We cannot imagine people taking such risks, but their alternative is starving to death…
In recent years, a number of beach lodges have opened around Lake Malawi. These have the potential to have a long-lasting positive impact in the surrounding communities by creating jobs. You can read a little more about this further on. And to read our blog about the friendly people of Malawi, click here.
Facts about Lake Malawi
Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest freshwater lake in the world. It is 29,600 km² in surface, which is almost the same size as the whole of Belgium! The lake is about 20% of the entire country of Malawi. Despite its elongated shape, you cannot see the other side from many places. Especially when there are some waves, it really feels like you’re by the sea.
The deepest point of Lake Malawi is 706 meters, but from most beaches it’s very shallow for a while. You can swim all year round, with water temperatures between 24°C – 29°C (75°F – 84°F).
The lake was created 8.6 million years ago, as the southernmost part of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. This is a special geological phenomenon as a result of tectonic plates drifting apart. It has a total length of almost 7000 km and its width varies between 30 and 100 km. In some places the Rift is even thousands of meters deep!
Lake Malawi is home to 700 – 800 different species of cichlids. Maybe even 1000, but this depends on scientists who continue to disagree on a group of subspecies. Cichlids are colored freshwater fish that are popular with aquarium enthusiasts around the world. In addition, there are a number of other species in the lake, such as Malawi sardines, catfish and tilapia-like fish.
The cichlids can be admired while snorkeling between the rocks. They come in different colors. Most species are so-called mouth brooders, which means that they don’t abandon their eggs and young like most fish. The female cichlids in Lake Malawi take their eggs back into their mouths after a male fertilizes them. After a few days, these hatch and the baby fish remain safe in their mother’s mouth for about three weeks. Even thereafter, they are protected by the mother for a while. In case of danger, they even flee back into her mouth!
Are there crocodiles in Lake Malawi?
We often get the question whether you can safely swim in Lake Malawi. Yes, you can, but always keep in mind it’s a lake in Africa… Crocodiles like shelter to hide in. We therefore only swim in open areas. A crocodile has no use of a “bare” beach. Their whole hunting technique is based on camouflage. We therefore strongly advise against entering the water where there is a lot of vegetation such as reed. And never swim in the dark!
In general, crocodiles only live in the rivers to and from Lake Malawi, but seldomly one is seen in the lake itself, almost always in the south. You can of course also ask the locals if it’s safe to swim that day. And if you really don’t want to take any risks, many beach lodges also have a swimming pool.
And what about hippos and other wildlife?
The same as with crocodiles, also applies to hippos. They also don’t feel very comfortable in such a large open water. A number of hippos live in the bays at Monkey Bay and Mangochi, but they keep their distance from people. With one exception, who was very friendly with a bunch of children.
As for other wildlife, you can see a lot of birds at Lake Malawi. Almost everywhere you’ll be woken up in the morning by the iconic call of the African fish eagle. Of course there are many egrets, kingfishers and the yellow-colored weavers like to make their nests in overhanging branches. Several species of swallows and bee-eaters also live around the lake. And depending on the type of vegetation on land, you can make a beautiful bird list in a few days.
You also have a good chance of seeing water and rock monitor lizards on the islands. If you’re really lucky, you might even come across an otter somewhere!
Accommodations on Lake Malawi
From budget to all-inclusive and from homestay to barefoot luxury, Lake Malawi offers all kinds of accommodation. The three most famous “hotspots” are, from south to north, Cape Maclear, Senga Bay and Nkhata Bay.
Cape Maclear is like a peninsula in the south of Lake Malawi. Most of this is a protected nature reserve. The fishing village of Chembe lies at the tip, where there is a whole strip of accommodations, restaurants and bars on the beach. There’s always a lot going on here, due to the daily activities of the villagers.
In Cape Maclear it’s possible to walk on the beach from one venue to the other for something to eat and drink. You don’t have to stay at just your own accommodation! You can also kayak, snorkel at Thumbi Island and even go hiking or mountainbiking here. Keep in mind that Cape Maclear is known as a backpacker’s party spot. If you prefer a little more peace and space, you can consider booking at one of the resorts in different price ranges just outside Cape Maclear, in Monkey Bay or Mangochi.
Senga Bay at Salima is the closest beach for people living in Lilongwe. The accommodations are mostly fully booked on weekends and many people even drive up and down for a day. The sand in Senga Bay is a lot darker than the golden beaches in the south of Lake Malawi. This can get pretty hot in the sun, so watch out when walking barefoot!
Did you know we also manage a self-catering cottage with private beach in Senga Bay?
Nkhata Bay is located in northern Malawi and has no sandy beaches, but beautiful large rocks and boulders. As a result, the water is always crystal clear and you see the colored cichlid fish everywhere. As in Cape Maclear, many backpackers come here. But Nkhata Bay has a calmer atmosphere. Which doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a few cocktails!
The town is quite steep on a hill on the lake. So if you decide to walk from your accommodation to a nice restaurant, you definitely deserve dessert…
In addition, there are a number of beach lodges and resorts scattered along Lake Malawi. Usually these are a bit quieter and all-inclusive. If you tell us what you love, we can find the perfect accommodations for you. It’s good to know that we only work with places that “do something back”. This can be for the local communities or for nature, but preferably both. With 1 2 Travel Africa you will never stay somewhere where all the money disappears into foreign bank accounts. We stand for decent pay for staff and offering opportunities to develop additional skills, such as entrepreneurship. That way you don’t just do something nice for yourself by traveling to Malawi!
Islands of Lake Malawi
You can also stay on a number of islands in the lake. The most exclusive is Likoma Island, close to Mozambique, in the north of Lake Malawi. Here you can stay at Mango Drift and the luxurious Kaya Mawa. Likoma Island is quite a boat trip, so many people prefer to take a private plane to get here. This is obviously not the most sustainable option, so we recommend the (in)famous Ilala Ferry for the more adventurous. There’s also a seasonal option to take a speedboat. Talk to us, to find out which is best for you and your budget!
The island closest to Malawi’s capital Lilongwe is Nankoma Island. The boat leaves just south of Senga Bay. The luxurious Blue Zebra Island Lodge (named after one of the cichlid species in the lake) is the only accommodation on Nankoma. The island is also officially protected as a nature sanctuary. Besides beautiful trees and flowers in a jungle-like forest, you could find fantastic birds here. Such as the African Pitta, which makes many bird watchers’ hearts beat faster!
Our own favorite are two islands in the south of Lake Malawi. Mumbo Island and Domwe Island are located off Cape Maclear and the accommodations are managed by Kayak Africa. The name says it all; in addition to a “normal” boat trip, you can also kayak to these islands yourself!
Domwe Island is quite large and offers the option of hiking in the shade of old trees. Here you can camp yourself or stay in one of the safari tents on the water’s edge. Because you have the option of self-catering accommodation here, this is an affordable way to enjoy optimal peace and freedom.
Mumbo Island offers the same eco setting as Domwe, but more luxurious. Over the years, the chef here has prepared many delicious romantic meals for honeymooners!
Where did we stay before?
During the COVID pandemic, we teamed up with someone who is building a beach lodge on the south of Lake Malawi. From the private beach we had a view of Mumbo and Domwe Island. We could enjoy the most beautiful sunsets in Malawi all year round. Obviously with our feet in the sand and a local gin & tonic in our hand!
After living in this ”bubble” for about a year and a half, we moved back to Lilongwe when the travel industry started recovering in July 2022. We’re obviously extremely grateful for the time we stayed at Lake Malawi. Besides living in paradise, we learned so much about the country and the local culture by working closely together with the people from a neighbouring fisherman’s village. We carry those experiences in our heart!